Venice
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Walking across bridges and wandering down the narrow streets of the 188 small islands that make up the city, you may get lost, but you will definitely find yourself engaged by the rhythms and charm of Venice.
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updated 2/7/2010 2:53:03 PM ET 2010-02-07T19:53:03

“Blank walls.” “Sterile plazas.” A “dead zone.”

Is this some war-ravaged town? Some broken-down inner city? Nope, it’s a description of Bilbao, Spain, where a Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim Museum sits right on the edge of a picturesque river. Yet one organization not only called Bilbao’s waterfront area all of the above, it also proclaimed the waterfront one of the world’s most alienating.

That organization is the Project for Public Spaces (PPS)—a nonprofit group that promotes community-friendly places over haute design—and the judgment on Bilbao came from studying more than 200 cities worldwide. The result: a list of destinations where the waterfront has become (or has always been) a vital place for city residents and tourists to shop, work, and gather.

One of PPS’s criteria is what it calls the Power of Ten: a minimum of 10 destinations or purposes for visiting. These elements can include cafés, playgrounds, historic sites, museums, outdoor markets, performance arenas, gardens, ferry landings, or shops. Waterfronts conceived for many uses—or ones that naturally evolved that way—trump single-use designs (like the riverfront area beside Bilbao’s Guggenheim) every time.

Ironically, one city that breezily aces the Power of Ten test lies just 60 miles from Bilbao. In San Sebastián, the waterfront—two white-sand crescents of beach bisected by the mouth of the Urumea River—is fringed by a promenade of parks, pavilions, and wide walkways. And right across the boulevard is a human-scaled assortment of shops, cafés, and hotels. The busy area remains the thriving heart of San Sebastián. Yet no city planners were involved in this success story: the old town was settled at the water’s edge and never lost its vital role as the marketplace, no matter how development sprawled away from the waterfront.

San Sebastián, Spain
Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd.  /  Alamy
San Sebastián, a popular Spanish beach resort between Biarritz and Bilbao, entices visitors to its waterfront with features like two crescent beaches that run along the Bay of Biscay at the edge of the old city and the Parte Vieja, a neighborhood that buzzes with activity.

On the other side of the planet, Sydney’s waterfront reveals another mostly unplanned success. You’ll find icons like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Nearby Circular Quay is the city’s central transit hub for ferries, trains, and buses.

Offices, restaurants, and trendy shops have taken up residence in renovated shipping warehouses. Airy, green parks and busy walking paths line the harbor. Sydney lives on the water, and the harbor is so fundamental to the city’s character that it’s unfathomable to imagine visiting without riding the ferry or hoisting a pint in a docklands bar.

Waterfronts like Sydney’s crowd the list of top waterfront cities compiled by the Project for Public Spaces. From old-world stalwarts like Helsinki to new-world entries like San Francisco’s north waterfront, these cities invite you down to the river, harbor, lake, or sea to watch an engaging waterfront at work. The experts at PPS have spoken, but the true test of a great waterfront is traveling there and experiencing it for yourself.

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

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